Gnostic Christianity: The Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber

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"The Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber: What Was It?"

The discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices (a group of ancient texts found in an urn) in Upper Egypt 60 years ago has sparked some fascinating debates about Christianity’s central mystery. One of the most intriguing candidates for that mystery is the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber. It is described specifically in the Gospel of Philip as the means to attain Christhood. It is also alluded to in the Exegesis on the Soul and, apparently, the Gospel of Thomas.

For those raised on the traditional assumptions that Jesus was celibate and sex has a sinful element, the very suggestion that He practiced the "Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber" as a path to Christhood can be both startling…and tantalizing. Was the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber purely the invention of a heretical branch of misguided Christians - prudently persecuted by Roman Catholics once the might of the empire was behind them? Or was this sacrament possibly the mystery that gave Christianity its enormous initial impetus - before it was misguidedly suppressed by Church authorities?

In his book, There Is No Male and Female, Professor Dennis R. MacDonald points out that, by the time Saint Paul wrote the material in Galatians, there was already a widespread oral tradition - evidence of which has come to light via Egypt, Syria and Greece - which suggests it is possible that Jesus taught a mystery about the union of male and female.1

The Kingdom will come when the two are one, and the outside as the inside, and the male with the female neither male nor female.

Moreover, scholars believe that the content of some of the Nag Hammadi cache, the Gospel of Thomas, for example, predates the canonical gospels in the New Testament - raising the question of how Church authorities selected the gospels ultimately included in the Bible.

Was the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber purely allegorical, or did it contemplate a physical union? If it involved the sexual union of lovers, Fertility

  • was it a fertility rite, as portrayed in The DaVinci Code?
  • was it a rite for the conception of spiritually-advanced offspring as suggested by Jean-Yves Leloup in a recent translation of the Gospel of Philip?
  • was it a means of giving birth to the Christ within, two-by-two, employing controlled intercourse?

For years scholars interpreted the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber as an allegorical union, despite the rather explicit references to intercourse in the Nag Hammadi texts. Apparently unable to imagine Jesus engaged in sexual intimacy, most translated the words implying sexual union as "marriage," and the Exegesis on the Soul was read strictly as a metaphorical account of union between the Bridegroom (Jesus) and the fallen soul of (wo)man. This interpretation is in line with official Christian dogma.

Yet the actual language in the Nag Hammadi texts urges us to remove our canonical spectacles. In doing so, we must consider the possibility that it was the later Church authorities who mistakenly narrowed the initial concept of sacred union to an allegorical tale...and have, ever since, interpreted new historical evidence accordingly.

Now, observers are daring to explore the possibility that the Gospel of Philip means what it appears to say: intercourse, correctly performed, is an essential sacrament, and ordinary sex has unsuspected perils with spiritual implications.

Some form of the "bridal chamber" ritual appears to have made it as far as the Rhône Valley. We know because self-appointed "heretic buster" Irenaeus accused someone there, called "the prophet Marcus," who headed a popular spiritual movement, of practicing ritual sex with numerous women who were seduced into joining his cult. The Marcosians evidently observed a rite called the "bridal chamber" in which they entered a "spiritual marriage."2

However, there was no evidence that the accusations of wanton behavior were true. We don't know what the ritual actually entailed. Scholar Michael Allen Williams believes the Marcosian bridal chamber was more likely a reference to some chaste, spiritual practice like the "sacrament of the bridal chamber" mentioned in the Gospel of Philip.3

In The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown portrays the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber as a fertility rite involving sanctified, if somewhat...public sex. He weaves his story around the Knights Templar claim that Mary Magdalen bore Jesus’ child, thereby founding the Merovingian bloodline of French kings. Jesus & Mary

French Orthodox theologian Jean-Yves Leloup has a different interpretation of the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber. In his recent translation of the Gospel of Philip,4 he compares the Sacrament to aspects of Jewish mysticism, developed many centuries later in the Kabbala, which touch on how to conceive superior children.

As Leloup points out, the Gospel of Philip envisions a "sacred embrace," which is a sexual union based not on lust, but rather upon the spiritual blending of man and woman. He then distinguishes between mere procreation and "creative engendering," in which the sacred embrace of a couple calls down a spark of divinity to conceive a physical child, but with enhanced spiritual potential. Without this sacrament of holy union, Leloup says, children may be well born, yet poorly conceived. The holiest goal is immaculate conceptions, with pure intentions (i.e., giving freely, an expression of creative generosity, a child desired for itself).5

Yet other observers, Cambridge scholar Mary Sharpe6 among them, agree that the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber calls for the sexual union of mates, but not for the purpose of producing physical offspring. The Gnostic gospels teach that physical offspring were associated with mankind's fall from grace in the first place. The Gospel of Philip says:

There are two trees in paradise. The one produces beasts; the other produces man. Adam ate from the tree which produced beasts, and becoming a beast he begat beasts.7

All those who practice the sacred embrace will kindle the light; they will not beget as people do in ordinary marriages, which take place in darkness.8

The Gospel of Thomas makes clear that better procreation was not Jesus’ objective:

Jesus A woman in the crowd said to him [Jesus], "Lucky are the womb that bore you and the breasts that fed you." He said to [her], "Lucky are those who have heard the word of the Father and have truly kept it. For there will be days when you will say, 'Lucky are the womb that has not conceived and the breasts that have not given milk.'" 9

The Gnostic goal appears to be an immaculate conception, resulting from a "pure embrace," the "holy of holies," i.e., careful intercourse that reunites male and female. This conception leads to the coveted second birth, that of the Christ within, and represents the return to humankind's non-dual wholeness...the awakened state in which God created us.

[We] are reborn by the Christ two by two. In his Breath, we experience a new embrace; we are no longer in duality, but in unity. 10

All will be clothed in light when they enter into the mystery of the sacred embrace.11

What is the bridal chamber, if not the place of trust and consciousness in the embrace? It is an icon of Union, beyond all forms of possession; here is where the veil is torn from top to bottom; here is where some arise and awaken.12

This sacred embrace offers return to the Edenic state in which Adam and Eve had not yet been driven apart by the effects of physical procreation (emotional alienation, which when projected outward produces dualistic perception, and the birth/death cycle). As the Gospel of Philip explains,

If woman had not been separated from man, she would not die with man. Her separation was at the origin of death. Christ comes again to heal this wound, to rediscover the lost unity, to enliven those who kill themselves in separation, reviving them in union.13 Adam and Eve

When Eve was in Adam, there was no death; when she was separated from him, death came. If she enters back into him, and he accepts her, there will be no more death….14

[Jesus came] to the place of separation so as to reunite all that had been separated in God.15

But what exactly is this sacred embrace? Various texts of the Nag Hammadi collection suggest that it is physical, yet controlled, intercourse (i.e., union without orgasm, but with a deep, psychic merging):

[The] embrace that incarnates the hidden union... is not only a reality of the flesh, for there is silence in this embrace. It does not arise from impulse or desire; it is an act of will.16

Another clue that the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber calls for lust-free intercourse lies in the Exegesis on the Soul.17

Sacrament of the Bridal ChamberFrom heaven the Father sent her her man, who is her brother, the firstborn. Then the bridegroom came down to the bride....Since that marriage is not like the carnal marriage, those who are to have intercourse with one another will be satisfied with that intercourse. And as if it were a burden they leave behind them the annoyance of physical desire....[Once] they unite [with one another], they become a single life....For they were originally joined to one another when they were with the Father before the woman led astray the man, who is her brother. This marriage has brought them back together again and the soul has been joined to her true love....

According to the Gospel of Thomas, this spiritual (re)union of male and female is the way in which we return to the Kingdom, and regain our primordial power and wholeness.

Jesus said to them, "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom].

The Gospel of Philip alludes to flaws in fertilization-driven intercourse:

The union is in this world man and woman, the place of the power and the weakness.18

[Through] the sacred embrace, we are invited into the interior. As long as this is hidden, unhappiness prevails; it always poisons the seeds [sperma], and evil is at work.19

If someone experiences Trust and Consciousness in the heart of the embrace, they become a child of light. If someone does not receive these, it is because they remain attached to what they know; when they cease to be attached, they will be able to receive them.20

Intriguingly, the Gnostic gospels are not the only sources from the past that refer to a sacred physical union between male and female for a spiritual end loftier than physical procreation. Sexual Alchemy

The same concept of "going beyond our obsession with seeds and eggs" to reach a state of transcendent wholeness appears in Lao Tzu’s ancient Hua Hu Ching. He recommends controlled intercourse, or angelic dual cultivation - in which conventional orgasm is avoided in favor of the opportunity for a man and woman to mutually transform and uplift each other into the realm of bliss and wholeness. The key is intercourse led by spirit rather than the sexual organs. This practice can give birth to something immortal, refining gross, heavy energy into divine light. By contrast, during ordinary intercourse accumulated energy is discharged, and the subtle energies are dissipated and disordered in a great backward leap.21

Alice Bunker Stockham, MD in her book Karezza: Ethics of Marriage, also suggests the possibility of non-physical "offspring" born of the sacred union of male and female. Stockham reports that there are deeper purposes and meanings to the reproductive faculties and functions than are generally understood. In the physical union of male and female there may be a soul communion of great power.22

Men and women practicing Karezza [gentle, conscious lovemaking without conventional orgasm] attest that their very souls in union take on a procreating power, and that it seems to have an impregnating force, far transcending in power and intelligence any ordinary thought force.23 Alice Bunker Stockham

She points out that the resulting progeny, in the form of great art, new inventions, and healing powers, can do much to improve the world - even apart from the spiritual gains from enhanced soul growth. In comparison, she notes the following:

The ordinary hasty spasmodic method of cohabitation is deleterious both physically and spiritually, and is frequently a cause of estrangement and separation.24

There is recent neuroscience that supports the wisdom of learning to make love with controlled intercourse. Sex without conventional orgasm promotes inner equilibrium and more stable bonding because it mitigates the high/low cycle of various neurochemical fluctuations, of which dopamine is the best known. Dopamine is the driving, "craving" neurochemical behind sexual desire and all addictions.

This high/low cycle, which accompanies fertilization-driven sex, does indeed separate mates and poison unions. During the low part of the cycle lovers tend to pull away from each other, or experience emotional friction, as they project onto each other the unwelcome effects of natural, biologically-driven neurochemical changes. This often creates a baffling attraction/repulsion dynamic in intimate relationships. See Your Brain on Sex.

Interestingly, the Gospel of Philip specifically mentions that those who are no longer enslaved by the world rise above attraction and repulsion. To do so, however, they must receive a power that is both masculine and feminine [achieve equilibrium?] in the bridal chamber.25 Paul Could the sages mentioned above be pointing to the same mystery as the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber? Is it possible that sacred sexual union, based upon controlled intercourse, is indeed a path to heightened spiritual awareness? Can fertilization-driven sex be preventing the sexes from rediscovering their innate non-dual perception? Did those early Catholics succeed in burying the central mystery of Christianity for most of the last two thousand years Catholic churchmanwhen they condemned the Gnostic point of view?

Certainly the Nag Hammadi discoveries, with their intriguing descriptions of the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber and parallels to other wisdom of the past, raise these possibilities. Perhaps the only way to discover the truth is to attempt to recreate the experience of the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber for ourselves. As The Gospel of Philip says:

Seek the experience of the pure embrace [also translated as "undefiled intercourse"]; it has great power. 26

If you found this article interesting, please see Spiritual Brides of Early Christianity and our Open Letter to Gnostic Scholars.

  • 1. Although it is not always interpreted to be a reference to sacred union, the following basic saying appears in three ancient sources:
  • 2. Adversus Haereses 1.13.4, 21.3
  • 3. Rethinking "Gnosticism" pp. 174-5
  • 4. The Gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the Gnosis of Sacred Union, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont (2004).
  • 5. Ibid., p. 20.
  • 6. "Sexuality and the Sacred in Gnostic Literature", University of Cambridge, dissertation (2001).
  • 7. translated by R. McL. Wilson, p. 47
  • 8. Leloup's Gospel of Philip, L.126.
  • 9. The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version, Robert J. Miller, ed.
  • 10. # Leloup's Gospel of Philip, L.74.
  • 11. Leloup's Gospel of Philip, L.77.
  • 12. Leloup's Gospel of Philip, L.76.
  • 13. Leloup's Gospel of Philip, L.78.
  • 14. Leloup's Gospel of Philip, L.71.
  • 15. Leloup's Gospel of Philip, L.72.
  • 16. Leloup's Gospel of Philip, L.122.
  • 17. The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James M. Robinson, ed., pp. 195-6
  • 18. Wilson's Gospel of Philip, p.52.
  • 19. Leloup's Gospel of Philip, L.125.
  • 20. Leloup's Gospel of Philip, L.127.
  • 21. Hua Hu Ching : Unknown Teachings of Lao Tzu, trans. Brian Walker, Harper SanFrancisco (1995), sections 65-69.
  • 22. Karezza: Ethics of Marriage, Alice Bunker Stockham, MD (1902), p.13
  • 23. Ibid., p.104
  • 24. Ibid., p.23
  • 25. Leloup's Gospel of Philip, L.61.
  • 26. Leloup's Gospel of Philip, L.60.